‘A Door Half Open To Surprise’: Charles Madge’s Imminences.
This is an expanded version of a paper given at the conference on Mass Observation as Poetry and Science: Charles Madge and His Contexts held at the University of Sussex, May 12th, 2000. It has appeared in print form in New Formations, 44 (2001): 52-62. It is copyright Steven Connor 2000.
The sense of imminent cataclysm, of tremendous things trembling on the brink of happening, is recurrent in Charles Madge’s poetry of the 1930s and early 1940s. Often, he writes out of a sense of anticipatory pause or lull, tense with waiting, as
To sweep our harbour clear, and wash the shore
And we surrender to the final pain
[Charles Madge, ‘The Lull’, Of Love, Time and Places: Selected Poems (London: Anvil Press, 1994), p. 135. References hereafter to OLTP.]
A door half open to surprise…If the writing in the road
Had led a stranger’s foot nearer that door and in…
The transfiguring change that is awaited, imagined and wooed in these poems is seen against the background of a vision of a sterile England, huddled in conformity, sexual repression and shrivelled purpose: in a version of the modernist anti-modernism of Lawrence, Eliot and Auden. Sometimes, Madge imagines the excited liquefaction of this locked and narrow world, for example in the ‘Man Maniform’ section of his mock-alchemical ‘Hours of the Planets’, in which an evolutionary tide of near-human exile-creatures floods across the Thames:
Out of Europe grown gaunt and old
Multiple genera untabulated
Carrying pouches, tufted behind ears,
Splay-footed, hammer-fingered, hooked, humped (OLTP, 29)
When will you break your banks (OLTP, 29)
I do not want you to stand still to get it.
You will have it if you go high-speed (OLTP, 127)
Modernist experiment is part of the liquefying surprise of the new, of the ‘all that is solid [that] melts into air’ that Madge was fond of quoting in his political writing. Like the Auden whom he admired, and, like so many young writers in the 1930s, imitated, Madge had an ambivalent relation to modernism. He entertained a public suspicion of modernist experiment and private obscurity and proclaimed the historical necessity of socialist realism. Indeed, at times he saw Mass Observation as the self-authorship of the mass in the production of socialist realism. He also shared Auden’s desire for lightness and directness – though not always Auden’s ability to mine the mechanisms of light verse with surprise. And yet he was also capable of conceiving a modernism joined to mass expression, or, as in this rather interestingly idiosyncratic account of Joyce’s late writing presumably in Finnegans Wake, retreating so far into the self as to escape from it back into the world:
Only occasionally does Madge allow himself to characterise in any detail what the poem ‘Instructions’ calls ‘The new world lying in ambush round the corner of time’ (OLTP, 128). But in this somewhat incautiously specific poem, Madge does evokes the new dispensation, with uncharacteristically raking Whitmanesque fervour:
Spreading from house to house without wires. This new song has come to stay.We shall be differently aware, we shall see all things new
Not as a craze or a surprise, but hard, naked, true. (OLTP, 128)
However, the poems in The Disappearing Castle often join Prufrockian indecision to revolutionary apprehension. Rather than the imminent insurgence of new life from the collapse of the old, the poems elaborately recreate the sense of stubbornly plugged impediment:
I cannot join with the ascending light.
…England is fallen. Home is gone. Time stands. (‘In Sua Voluntade’, OLTP, 17)
Time, in Madge’s poetry, is always liable to freeze or be compressed into space; into inhuman landscapes, blankly convulsive oceans, moon-irradiated deserts, in which the possibility of change is whispered, cryptic, figural, as in the anonymous dust of the thousands who live ‘in ignorance and pain’ in ‘Delusions IV’, which covers everything except ‘the uncanny sphinx, their hieroglyph’ (OLTP, 51), which is both formed from dust and the form of it.
If the self could be swept up in the dynamic emergency of historical time, it could also be drawn into the reverie of recurrence, or elemental time, imaged in this fragment, as so often in Madge’s writing, in terms of the sea:
Contemplate in reverie the beautiful motion of tunicates
And remember our origin in the ambiguous sea (OLTP, 64)
Simple sponges and gregarious fish
Exert brief lives without a wish.To be a vertebrate is to be a street. (OLTP, 63)
Of the centurion tides
Conveying the moons after
The moons of gone tides
Shadows that with water mix
And daily races of the sun
Over the perennial treetops (OLTP, 33)
The proverbs of a former race,
And the ungathered sun and corn
And water belong to the race (OLTP, 33)
Forces its way through the stones and the pavements.
The fibrils of their being are everywhere.It is useless to avoid them, stepping to one side
From the small shadow and the puddle in the rain:
Once found they will not lose you again. (OLTP, 83)
Propulsion to an end.
There is a reason for all that running to and fro. (OLTP, 147)
The Darwinist and biologistic cast of so many of Madge’s poems of the 1930s, at a time when so much of his other life was bound up with the exploration of social life, as journalist and then as social investigator, is curious. I want to see it as a contrast between different ways of apprehending time: of the somnolent time of purely material existence, and the emergent historical time of mass society; the time of mere commotion and the time of life-story. Madge wrote in 1937 that his fourteen months as a reporter on the Daily Mirror ‘taught me to understand the queer poetry of the newspaper and the advertisement hoarding, and not to dismiss it simply because it is sensational and vulgar.’ [‘The Press and Social Consciousness’, Left Review, 3 (1937), p. 285.] Mass Observation stood half way between Madge’s different lives as newspaperman and poet. Both Madge’s poetry and his work for Mass Observation allow an enquiry into the part that poetry might have in the temporality of mass self-consciousness – or the movement of temporality into consciousness.
Madge valued the newspaper and the hoarding because they were ‘vehicles for the expression of the unconscious fears and wishes of the mass’. [‘The Press and Social Consciousness’, Left Review, 3 (1937), p. 285.] In his work with Mass Observation, Madge sought, or said that he sought, to bring these mass fears and wishes to consciousness. The use he makes of Freud’s later writings can suggest the necessity of a form of understanding which will dissolve the fixative force of neurotic wishes by giving them expression. His essay ‘Magic and Materialism’, which we may read as a personal manifesto for Mass Observation, proclaims as roundly as anyone might wish that ‘Our common front is the application of materialism to superstition.’ [Magic and Materialism’, Left Review, 3 (1937) [31-5], p. 34.] It is not entirely clear whether the bringing to light of the ‘mass wish’ or the ‘mass fear’ is intended to make them visible and substantial – or to abolish them, as a preparation for the emergence of some less encumbered and distorted form of consciousness. Perhaps a combination of the two: perhaps it is expected that mass feelings, once given form or visibility, will lose their neurotic character, though without disappearing or being superseded altogether.
One can see the signs of this uneasiness in the treatment of some of the material gathered together in the May The Twelfth Mass Observation anthology. For the most part, the editors, Madge and Humphrey Jennings, attempt simply to let observers and their observations speak for themselves. But the most telling parts of the anthology are the footnotes and editorial comments which the editors occasionally permit themselves, such as the anthropological gloss on the contribution from the sceptical Platonist observer in which he describes the application of restorative hair-oil to himself, in what we are told is an identificatory self-anointing. [May The Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937 By Over Two Hundred Observers, ed. Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 317.] At other times, the editors point to odd conjunctures and congruities emerging from the material. Perhaps the most arresting of these concerns paper. They first point to the multitude of forms and uses which were found for paper during the Coronation day:
The long footnote moves from paper as polymorphous stuff to paper as the carrier of news, with an admiring account of the organisation of runners to carry photographic plates to motor launches on the Thames, which enabled special editions of the evening papers, with pictures of the procession which had arrived at the Abbey at 11.00, to be on sale on the Buckingham Palace Road an hour and twenty minutes later. But this movement, which turns paper into meaning, has already been countermanded by the observation (we are still in Madge and Jennings’s long footnote), that this ‘triumph of organisation which brought out early editions of evening papers was not well rewarded in London itself’. This seems not just to have been because the crowds were getting their news from the radio loudspeakers all along the route, but also, Madge and Jennings suggest, because of a sense of nauseated surfeit at the sheer mass of paper: ‘The stands and pavements were positively drowned in paper…People came to feel that there was so much paper about that you did not want any more.’ (May The Twelfth, 145). So the footnote, which begins with paper as polymorphous substance, and ends with the triumph of paper as expressive medium, actually points to an inverse movement, in which paper begins as expressive and meaningful, and ends up as pure waste, an exhausted, scribbled-over, screwed-up swamping of signal by noise.
This connects with one newspaper-vendor’s interesting pitch, which reads like a bit of Leopold Bloom: ‘ “Coronation Number – Keep from going mad, doing nothing: Read while you wait” ‘ (May The Twelfth, 109). Another, slightly flummoxed footnote refers to Q.D. Leavis on the use of newspapers to stave off boredom, and concludes sniffily that the use of reading as a sedative ‘gives a striking view of our universal education and neurosis’ (May The Twelfth, 109). Madness is held at bay by the newspaper, but because the newspaper is only just this side of the nausea of the discarded, the used up, the already read, it participates in this threat of madness too.
This footnote might have been suggested by the observations recorded in Humphrey Jennings’s own report in particular, rendered as `CM.1′. CM.1 was one of the ‘Mobile Squad of 12 Observers’ who acted as a kind of shadow press, keeping in touch with the Mass-Observation headquarters by phone, taking notes continuously and writing up their accounts in the form of lengthy reports (May The Twelfth, 90). CM.1 records this arresting image from 11.25 a.m. in St. James’s Park:
So many of Madge’s own poems of the 1930s image the aspirations to transcendence of man in terms of the painful attainment or maintenance of the vertical (‘To be a vertebrate is to be a street’), against the temptation of relapse, the gravitational pull of the ground or of the sea. ‘Man Under Taurus’ begins with ‘The strain of being upright in the flat world’ endured by ‘Man more than man mechanical skyward genius.’ (OLTP, 19). Periscopes join also with the binocular or stereoscopic vision that is so recurrent a preoccupation of Madge’s poetry.
I have been unable to substantiate in Madge’s own poetry my intuition that here paper becomes the mediating image of mass existence – though I will just mention the final night which falls at the end of ‘Drinking in Bolton’, like a ‘pack of cards’ (OLTP, 108). But the thematic of elevation and drowning is particularly marked in some of Madge’s poetry, especially ‘Through the Periscope’, which imagines a drowned, undersea urban landscape. It is as if the periscope becomes an image for Mass Observation itself, enabling one to look out over the mass and see the stammering King who is perhaps nothing more than the reflection of the crowd’s own previously unremarked being; or the mass itself, achieving a kind of tautological perspective on itself, but in splinters and fragments. (Some members of the crowd brought along shaving mirrors and other improvised reflective devices to make their observations.)
What is the perspective offered by Mass Observation: gawping observation of the mass, eyes out on stalks (as object), or the mass engaged in the act of stalking itself? The periscope, which is as apt to let you see your neighbour’s secrets, or somebody fainting in the crowd a hundred yards away, as the Royal Family passing in state, is a perfect symbol of this flickering between immanence and eminent self-transcendence. The events of May 12th 1937 provide a coincidental mapping of the two temporal axes of Madge’s world: the time of insensate substance, and the time of sensate beings. On the one hand there is the periscope, associated with prospects and perspectives, and with time lengthened out into desire and anticipation; on the other hand, or, rather, underfoot, there is the churning, formless condition of paper, or mire. The commutability of the two dimensions is neatly emblematised by the fact that so many of the periscopes used and discarded on the day were in fact made of cardboard.
But there is another kind of perspective which is increasingly in evidence in Madge’s poetry through the 1930s, which is somewhat at odds with the confident assumptions regarding the necessary emergence of a lucid, mass self-knowledge. For Madge is also increasingly interested in minority, in incipience: the diminutive stirrings and twitchings of awareness and forms of life at the lowest level. Thus, for example, the last section of ‘Visions of Camden Town’, a poem which reflects on the material destruction of the War and the prospects of urban reconstruction, celebrates the emergence, not of a naked, necessary lucidity, in which everything will coincide with itself, and nothing any more be hidden, but of a more fugitive set of ‘awkward and gentle shapes’, which ‘emerge, tentatively free’, like the fragile, disregarded, formless appearances of nature to be found in the city (OLTP, 145). The Hardyesque poem ‘Inscription’ of 1946 ends its meditation on some lines carved in memorial stone with a registration of the humble forms of minor life that they enable: they are ‘Good grooves for lichen spores and chance connections’ (OLTP, 148). Madge, who had been in at the beginning the most insistent in his promises that Mass Observation would be the agency of a new and definitive form of mass consciousness, soon found an opportunity of mitigating his claims. Where, in the inaugural pamphlet for Mass Observation, Tom Harrisson was urging that the movement might itself constitute ‘a new synthesis’ of social thought, Madge characterised his position in the following, much more modest ways:
no scholar can decipher forces unknown
or negatively groping
on to the end of tactile sensation
restoring a dead man
life in that
a little crevice centipedes find
a way through solitude. (OLTP, 61)